When Burnley’s players trudged defeated and humiliated from the field on Boxing Day, after a 5-1 defeat administered by a no better than moderate Everton team, many Clarets supporters would have felt, as I did, that all was lost.
The defeat marked the conclusion to the first half of the Premier League season, a period during which Burnley had acquired a mere twelve points, a truly pitiful return.
A return which left them requiring victory in no fewer than half of their remaining matches in order to reach the forty point tally which invariably secures ongoing Premier League tenure.
But whilst there was no comfort to be gleaned from those grim statistics, there was even less encouragement on offer from the performance.
Burnley were quite simply awful on Boxing Day; hampered as they were by some ridiculous referring decisions from Michael Oliver. Mee conceding a soft penalty aside the Clarets were shapeless, toothless and clueless.
The deployment of three central defenders saw James Tarkowski repeatedly exposed down Burnley’s right flank by the tricky and speedy Bernard. Mee and Gibson both struggled to come to terms with the Toffees fluidity and movement off the ball.
The absence of an orthodox right back, allowed Gilfi Sigurdsson and Andre Gomez the space and time in the centre of midfield to wreak havoc. It was a shambles.
Ben Gibson’s scrambled goal offered the merest glimmer of hope at 3-1, but two further Everton goals in the second half firmly extinguished those flickering embers.
Whilst my sons and I watched the Clarets horrors unfold, my wife, daughter, and my sons’ partners were at home watching “Love, Actually”. It occurred to me that Hugh Grant’s dancing, Colin Firth’s struggles with the Portuguese language and Liam Neeson’s drumming stepson would have been a far more enjoyable alternative on Boxing Day than being at Turf Moor.
Subsequent victories on the following Saturday for Fulham and Cardiff only served to deepen the mood around Turf Moor as the Clarets prepared to host an in-form West Ham team on Sunday.
Leadership in a crisis requires a cool head and the willingness to take tough, decisive action. The Clarets are embroiled in a crisis, and Sean Dyche responded by dusting off the blueprints and restoring the original factory settings.
Burnley’s traditional 4-4-2 formation was re-deployed and back into the team came club captain Tom Heaton as goalkeeper in place of Joe Hart.
Hart has been by no means the most culpable in Burnley’s appalling half-season, but the sheer volume of goals conceded weighed against him and Heaton’s restoration provided supporters with the warm glow of reassurance.
Also included was Dwight McNeil, a teenager of promise who added the perspicacity and exuberance of youth.
The combination of those factors provided the Clarets with the spark to ignite them and the team responded with probably their best display of the season – although the bar for that accolade had been set depressingly low.
A flowing build up saw Chris Wood latch onto Ashley Barnes’ chested lay off and give Burnley an early lead.
They continued to press forward purposefully and the second goal arrived shortly afterwards when a period of pressure culminated in McNeil sliding in at the far post to convert Ashley Westwood’s excellent cross and register the first of what will undoubtedly be many Premier League goals.
Thereafter, Burnley maintained their control of the game and created a number of presentable chances. The striking pair of Barnes and Wood squandered those chances, but it was at least reassuring to see them being created.
Instrumental in the creation of those chances was young McNeil, whose performance displayed considerable maturity, particularly evident in his part in the move which led to the first goal.
Burnley still have their challenges to overcome and the journey towards Premier League survival will be arduous, without guarantee of success, but Sunday's victory puts them on the right path.
Wednesday’s game at the home of fellow strugglers, Huddersfield Town, is a match of huge importance but it is now one which Burnley may approach with a measure of restored confidence.
Written by Dave Thornley who contributes regularly to Clarets Mad. (TEC).